NEW YORK (Billboard) - Billy Joel has broken his self-imposed retirement from pop for the second time in a year, but he’d almost rather you didn’t know that.
The second new Joel-penned single since his last pop album, 1993’s “River of Dreams,” is called “Christmas in Fallujah” and hits iTunes December 4.
There are two major differences between it and the classics that have made him one of the best-selling artists of all time. First, there’s no piano on it, and second, there’s barely any Billy Joel on it, either.
Instead, for what Joel says is a first, he’s written a song for another singer, a 21-year-old Long Island native named Cass Dillon.
Joel is uncomfortable even with the idea of attaching himself too closely to the song. “I was hesitant to even talk to anyone about writing it, because I’m a little bit leery of overshadowing what it is,” he said.
What it is is a sweeping, midtempo rocker much harder and louder than anything in Joel’s recent history (if ever), told from the point of view of a soldier in the sands for whom the holiday has little import. “We came with the crusaders to save the holy land/It’s Christmas in Fallujah/and no one gives a damn,” Dillon sings.
Joel wanted to keep a low profile about his involvement because, he said, “Billy Joel comes with a lot of baggage, a lot of preconceptions about what Billy Joel is, and for as many people who like the stuff that I’ve done, there are plenty who don’t like it, and that’s fair enough, that’s life. But I don’t want that to get in the way of the song — which is one of the reasons I stopped writing songs altogether. I kind of got tired of Billy Joel’s voice, and Billy Joel’s image, and all the stuff that comes with it.”
Joel said that part of his inspiration for “Fallujah” was letters he had received from service personnel overseas, and part was simply his observations of the realities of war.
“It was a combination of a lot of things,” he said from a recent tour stop in Salt Lake City. “Constant exposure to the footage of what’s going on over in Iraq, the mail from servicemen and an awareness of how long this (war) has been going on for.” (Proceeds from the song will go to Homes for Our Troops, an organization that provides specially adapted homes for wounded veterans.)
The song came to him quickly, Joel said, as did the realization that he wasn’t the guy to record it. “I thought someone with a young voice should be singing this, someone just starting out in life,” he said. “Plus, you know, I’m 58 years old. My voice isn’t the voice I was thinking of when I was writing; I was thinking of a soldier, someone of that age.”
Enter Dillon, a young singer-songwriter who’d spent a few years under the wing of Tommy Byrnes, Joel’s longtime musical director. Dillon left college two years ago to pursue a musical career, and has spent the intervening years on the coffee-shops-and-bars circuit. Byrnes had played Joel several of Dillon’s songs, and when it came time to find a singer for “Fallujah,” Joel said, Dillon “popped right into my head.”
For Dillon, the task was not a small one. “On the one hand, I’m trying to stay level,” he said. “But on the other hand, I’m like, ‘This is my shot, my opportunity.”‘
The recording session came together quickly at Hyde Studios in San Francisco during a break in the Joel tour on — of all days — Veterans Day. The track features Joel’s band (and the singer on backing vocals). The quick turnaround presented some challenges. For a tune that was recorded and ready for release over about 72 hours, iTunes was the only option.
“I guess ultimately, because it’s the Christmas season, I’m hoping that the people over there are aware that we care about them,” Joel said of the song’s year-end release. “I would hate to have these people think that they’ve been forgotten.”
iTunes also will release Dillon’s debut EP, “A Good Thing Never Dies,” on December 4. (He has a full-length album in the can that he hopes to release next year.) There are plans for Dillon to join Joel during a few early-December stops, where he’ll perform “Fallujah” and stick around for “Goodnight Saigon.”
Those two songs are something like close cousins — not just because of their shared subject of war, but because of the focus on the cost of wars to the people fighting them.
“That’s how I’ve always tried to write — to avoid making grand political statements,” Joel said. “I’m not a big fan of rhetoric or dogma. My interest is in the human condition, rather than trying to get up on a soapbox and give my political views. It’s always more effective to write as a human being.”